The Blog

Misunderstanding the Black Male

Average black men - by this I mean black men who haven't just won gold medals at the Olympics- only see ourselves portrayed negatively. Media imagery zooms in on gang violence, failure at school, our aggressive masculinity and by corollary misogyny.

HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.

Since its inception, the British media has treated with contempt a long succession of minorities. Had it existed in this form at the dawn of British civilisation, palaeolithic men working at the Mail would've had their successive hatred of Romans, Saxons and Vikings chipped into stone and we'd know about it. The more modern line of hate-mongering is well known- we hated the 'Jews', then 'the Irish', then 'Blacks', 'Kosovans', now Muslims. Concurrent hatred of women and LGBT people neatly completed the smorgasbord.

A peculiarity of hate is that none of it has to be resolved before the tide comes in on a new group; the space in people's brains for hatred expands; the monopolised media moves on periodically, leaving people hating Jews, the Irish, Blacks, Kosovans, Muslims, women and transpeople with varying degrees of vigour depending on what's vogue. The hatred reserved for black people seems the most enduring of the lot.

Average black men - by this I mean black men who haven't just won gold medals at the Olympics- only see ourselves portrayed negatively. Media imagery zooms in on gang violence, failure at school, our aggressive masculinity and by corollary misogyny. It makes little attempt to verify the veracity of the stereotypes, nor is any attempt at explaining the grains of truth supposedly present in stereotypes forthcoming. It is enough that we are bad, dangerous people. Not to be trusted, feared. The widths of the roads crossed to get away from us symbolic of the chasms existing between our humanity and its. The jail cells mimicking an aggressive cancer, ever replicating.

We know where this war waged on black men comes from, and you can elicit a troll's sigh all you want but it's true: Slavery. We know what the shackling, selling, whipping, rape and murder necessitated: dehumanisation. Bestial though humanity would appear to an outsider, at least we have to go through that psychological exercise before we treat people horrifically. When black people talk of the need for reparations, we don't just mean in the financial sense; we need to repair the psychological damage done to white people which enables them to shoot dead hundreds of black people in one year in the US, with no recourse to justice, damage which enables 152 black deaths in police custody since 1990, with an equal lack of justice. When the people responsible for maintaining justice are the ones perpetrating the killings, you begin to see how little faith there is society is moving in the right direction.

Justice requires empathy, as does outrage. John Stuart Mill said "Outrage produces action" but action isn't taken because people don't care about black men except in a criminal context. We have new ways of channelling our outrage, but #BlackLivesMatter is the proverbial pastor preaching to the choir. The sickening #AllLivesMatter response, dressed as it is in an appeal to empathy for all when in fact it's designed as a riposte to black people specifically focussing on the disproportion of black lives lost to police, shows that society is at best wilfully ignorant of the plea to stop erasing black lives, at worst enjoying it. Why else would you hijack a hashtag?

We need to repair another of slavery's legacies: its perceived emasculatory action on black men and the resultant warping of masculine ideals. Not holding much truck with the idea that men protect families, it's facetious to ignore that designated historical role. When you can't stop your wife being raped because you are in chains, when you can't intervene when your children are sent to another part of the country because someone owns the deeds to you, you lose more than your freedom; you are rendered helpless. That stark bewildered helplessness you feel when you lose sight of your child in the supermarket: times it by a thousand, add perpetuity to it, and begin to feel how with so-called liberation, clawing back the autonomy taken can take on ferocity, aggression even. When Diane Abbott said black mothers will go to the wall for their children, this is what she meant.

If aggression is the natural inclination of masculinity, it was unnaturally held back during slavery except by those with the whips, and the hypocrisy of labelling black men peculiarly aggressive when finally given reign to express is particularly acute. The anger travels down the generations following the same route pride does. People seem able to countenance the movement through time of pride- 'we abolished slavery'- but not anger, an emotion more keenly felt when wrapped in physical and emotional pain.

Black Caribbean men of my father's generation had to contend with family breakdown when their parents boarded the Windrush in droves to work in Britain. Children en masse were left with their grandparents in Jamaica, bypassing a remove from slavery's legacy a step further; their heads were filled with colonialism's horrors even if they missed it, and it could be blamed not just for the collective tragic past, but the problems of the present, chiefly the lack of parents around. Grandparents of course did the best they could, but their embittered histories replete with Christianity replacing school were miasmic.

Finally allowed to join their parents during their teen years, they faced the likes of Oswald Mosley, vestiges of fascism, then the National Front. Any teacher questioning a propensity for violence in their black male students might have considered at break times they were routinely made to fight older white boys who wanted to test their strength, but it was no doubt easier to blame the alien. Education being sporadic due to its interruption, racism less sporadic due to a media which encouraged it, and family breakdown ubiquitous is a lot to contend with when you're a teenager. Where is the empathy for black people who've gone through such tumult?

Is it any wonder absentee fathers became a worrying trend, when there was so little example set? Families drifted apart, bonds weren't strengthened; Caribbean boys raised themselves; what good is fathering? Ironically black families became matriarchal again, but not through cultural choice. Whether we agree boys need good male role models is neither here nor there; the option often wasn't present. Generations of black boys had no fathers, and this was keenly felt in a society that structured itself around the nuclear family. Black women took on everything and more.

The furtherance of our collective achievement has begun steadily, the snowball on the precipice, ready to roll. There is a black President of the US, hinting at the heights it's obvious we could get to if allowed to thrive. We aren't to be feared. We're loving, jovial boys and men. That's what makes the characterisation of us as scary all the more hurtful. Let us show what we can do when you no longer feel you have to cross the road to avoid us.

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